August 18, 2021

The Olympics: a mirror to our social evolution

Laura Thomas

VP of Strategy


Despite the delay and the absence of spectators, headlines surrounding the 2020 (21 - thanks Covid!) Olympics weren’t far off from what most of us expect out of the quadrennial event, but I’d encourage you to take a closer look at how the Olympics acted as a mirror to our social evolution. Perhaps the stories of these games provide greater insight into all of us watching them at home than they do of the individuals on the podium. 


For me, The Olympics is not just about the sports, or the athletes, or even the medals, but rather it’s about the subtext of the event itself. I really wanted to explore the in-between moments of the event, the true storytellers. Those moments are like patchwork woven together to show a quilted pattern of the evolution of humanity. They help to personify what is happening in the larger socio-cultural context.

Approaching this theory with a team sport mentality, Curiosity identified seven societal truths reflected in the summer Olympics. Each a mirrored reflection of our society, headlines and struggles today. 

(1) Balking at Embedded Sexualized Standards: 

After years of being made to feel ashamed and sexualized in mandated uniforms, female athletes are rewriting the playbook. 

Germany’s women’s gymnastics team debuted full body competition unitards, making the statement that women athletes’ clothing choices should be their own. 

Outside of the gymnasium, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team chose to wear shorts instead of the regulated bikini bottoms to compete in this year’s games, resulting in a fine of 1,500 euros, which the singer Pink offered to cover. 

(2) Elevating the Mental Health Movement: 

Countless brands have opportunistically manufactured statements and vocalized support of the mental health movement, but fallen short of sincerity with action. 

Unlike a self-serving marketing campaign, Simone Biles’ decision to prioritize her mental health above the competition was an act of humanity. And, this act did not go unnoticed. With over 400K tweets associated with Simone Biles, the spotlight she cast on mental health was unprecedented. 

(3) Expansion of Human Expression: 

This year’s games also made strides towards inclusivity. New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard became the first openly transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics. And American skateboarder Alana Smith, the first non-binary athlete to compete for the US, proudly displayed their pronouns on a button and skateboard. While neither received a medal, they both victoriously overcame controversy. 

Beyond queer and trans representation, athletes expressed their unique identities through hair color, tattoos, and nail polish. 

In the hair category, we saw some of the most bold styles from athletes like Megan Rapinoe, Naomi Osaka, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. 

But hair wasn’t the only way athletes brought color to the games. Athletes did not shy away from showing off their ink.  Swimmer Adam Peaty of Britain displayed his large lion tattooed on his arm to signify courage during competition. Many athletes have Olympic rings on their bodies, including Simone Biles. 

Even nails were a way to express personality. American gymnast Sunisa Lee showed up to the gymnasium with perfectly manicured nails that included the iconic Olympic rings. 

(4) Curating Social Connection: 

The pandemic taught us to evolve relationships and foster connections virtually. The same was true for our Olympians, with TikTok in particular being a popular space for athletes to connect with fans across the globe. 

The Olympics were covered on TikTok in new ways, as athletes toured their rooms in the Olympic Village (including their cardboard beds) and showed off team merchandise. The platform also served athletes in engaging in authentic conversations about the challenges of elite sports, like Simone Biles’ nightly Instagram stories to update followers on her current state.  

(5) Spotlighting Cannabis:

During this year’s games, the use of cannabis became a hot topic among athletes and officials. One of the largest voices in this topic is US Soccer Women’s National Team player Megan Rapinoe. Rapinoe incorporates CBD products into her training routine with the goal of promoting natural alternatives to health and wellness. 

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) just recently removed CBD from its list of prohibited substances. THC remains as one of the banned substances, which is what prevented Sha’Carri Richardson from competing in Tokyo. 

(6) International Cross-Country Support:

Despite the fact that Covid restrictions made good sportsmanship and camaraderie difficult for athletes, they still found ways to connect during the games. 

American runner Isaiah Jewett sacrificed his own victory to help Botswana runner Nijel Amos cross the finish line following a trip during the last turn of the race. High jump athletes Essa Barshim, of Qatar, and Gianmarco Tamberi, of Italy, elected to share gold rather than undergo a tie-breaker. And during the finishing moments of the women’s individual triathlon competition, Norweigian athlete Lotte Miller came to the aid of Belgium athlete Claire Michel, who was in last place. 

Opponents became friends, rivals stepped up as heroes, and barriers were overcome. 

(7) Protests as a Way of Life:

Hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned away from the American flag during the national anthem and placed a black t-shirt over her head that said “Activist, Athlete.” US Olympic fencer Race Imboden displayed a black x on the back of his hand in solidarity of those who are oppressed. Raven Saunders, who won silver in shot put,  raised her arms into the shape of an x while on the podium, her statement representing the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet. And Luciana Alvarado, the first Costa Rican gymnast to ever qualify for the Olympics, even made protest part of her routine by taking a knee and holding her fist up during her floor routine.

Individual athletes were not the only ones protesting, as the US Women’s National Soccer Team took a knee with the Swedish team during the pregame music. Several other teams had players who knelt including Chile, England, and New Zealand. 

In Short, 

The Olympics have served as a microcosm of the world at-large, reflecting how not only our heroes, but humanity has progressed as a result of the pandemic. Still very much flawed, but seemingly more human, more authentic, and more connected than ever before. 

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